Semih Idiz – a Turkish columnist for Hurriyet Daily News and Taraf – wrote for Al-Monitor that Turkey is running out of diplomatic options in Syria. According to Idiz’s excellent article:
As the Syrian crisis rolls on with no apparent end in sight, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have little left in their diplomatic pouch to put Ankara at the forefront of efforts to solve this seemingly intractable problem. Their frustration is showing, too, as both continue to rail against the inactivity of the international community, and are unable to suggest anything new to end the deadlock. Meanwhile, developments are moving in a direction that neither can be too pleased about, given their grand vision which places Turkey at the center of everything to do with the region. One such development was the meeting in Paris on Jan. 28 that brought together senior members of the Syrian National Coalition and officials from 50 countries, including Turkey, in new push to solve the crisis.
While the meeting produced little concrete results, it still put the limelight on France at a time when Erdogan and Davutoglu are annoyed over the French intervention in Mali. Predictably linking Mali and Syria, Erdogan used harsh words against France during an address over the weekend in Istanbul, speaking to a domestic audience ready to accept his remarks at face value. “Why are they attacking Mali now?” Erdogan asked abrasively, going on to point at that country’s underground gold reserves. Recalling that Mali was once a French colony, Erdogan openly implied that Paris’ prime motivation here is to get hold of Mali’s natural resources.
“Why are they not coming to Syria? Because there is no oil or gold in Syria. There, you only have people who are struggling for independence” he lamented, conveniently disregarding the relevant UN Security Council resolution on Mali, as well as the fact that France has international support, including support from Africa, for this operation.
Erdogan’s reaction is reflective of his government’s growing dissatisfaction with the international handling of the Syrian crisis. However, his comments were aimed at a domestic audience, which shows how Ankara’s Syria policy has shifted from one of prodding the international community to intervene to a policy that focuses on chastising the international community for their hypocrisy. The difference is notable because of the AKP’s embrace of similar language and themes for its unannounced, but ongoing campaign for the 2014 election.
While Ankara may still support intervention in Syria, Turkey is likely to have some trouble formulating its response to the reports that Israel has bombed a Syrian convoy in Lebanon. Despite Turkey’s support for the armed Syrian resistance, and its repeated threats to intervene and establish a buffer zone, Ankara’s policy has always favored multi-lateral action. In a perfect world, Ankara would have preferred a United Nations mandate, backed by the Arab League for the imposition of a no-fly-zone. Once imposed, I would assume that Turkey would have favored the multi-lateral coalition to liberally interpret the mandate and conduct air strikes in support of the Syrian rebels. (As a side note, Turkey’s blatant telegraphing of its preferred approach was also noticed in Russia and China).
Turkey’s policy, however, shuns unilateral intervention. Thus, the Israeli actions are likely to draw some sort of negative response from Prime Minister Erdogan. In Mali, the Turkish government walked a very fine line. Turkey mildly rebuked the French intervention and stated its preference for a multi-lateral approach. However, Erdogan has largely refrained from criticizing the operation. Erdogan’s muted (by his standards) response to the French operation is a reflection of Turkey’s rejection of radical Islamism and its fear of Al Qaeda empowerment. However, Ankara has a domestic constituency to worry about and it is easy to use France to advance the political narrative that Erdogan has been seeking to cement in the run up to the 2014 elections.
Israel’s actions in Syria, however, are completely different than those of France in Mali. Thus, Erdogan will have to craft a new set of talking points to frame his government’s response to the Israeli actions. While it would be easy to assume that Turkey will resort to the bombastic language it used during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, the current dynamics are different. I would assume that Ankara will base its criticism on Israeli unilateral action and the fact that the strike took place in Lebanese territory.
Behind the scenes, the Turkish leadership is likely to be of two opinions about the Israeli action. On the one hand, there are credible reports that Turkey and Israel are sharing intelligence and cooperating on ways to ensure that weapons are not smuggled out of a post-Assad Syria. Turkey is wary of the PKK/PYD having access to arms, while Israel fears the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. Thus, they have an incentive to cooperate on a narrow set of issues. With regards to the Israeli strike, there are probably some who see the strike as a useful deterrent. Others within the Turkish security establishment are probably arguing that Turkey should carry out similar operations, if they receive actionable intelligence that weapons are falling into the hands of either the PYD or the PKK.
The other wing may be arguing that the Israeli involvement in the conflict could further empower radical groups like Jabhat al Nusra, which espouses views that are antithetical to Turkey’s political goals. Moreover, they could argue that the Israeli action could galvanize Assad’s forces or further fracture the disorganized rebel leadership. Thus, it would be prudent for Turkey to loudly condemn the Israeli action so as to try and distance Ankara from the decisions made in Tel Avivi.
Turkey, therefore, finds itself in a strategic quandary. On the one hand, it has an incentive to support the strike. While on the other, it has to worry about the fall-out of direct Israeli involvement. However, Erdogan is a smart politician who has shown that he has a the pulse of his people. Thus, I am assuming that he is going to split the difference. Erdogan, as he did during the Gaza crisis, will be quiet about the incident for the next couple of days. He will outsource the response to Foreign Minister Davutoglu, who will in turn issue a mildly worded rebuke. The Foreign Minister will base his criticism on Israel’s decision to undertake unilateral military action. Erdogan will follow this criticism with a more scathing critique during his next major speech/press conference. The AKP will then largely abandon the issue, in favor of more pressing local issues like the Kurdish peace talks and the changing of the Constitution.
Stay tuned . . .